The mounting excitement in the Haddonfield Middle School gymnasium suggested the arrival of a legendary rock star. But as students filled the bleachers and occupied the floor space, the buzz was directed toward a slender young woman in camouflage, blond hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun.
"There she is!" was the murmur on a recent Friday. The "she" in question smiled shyly as Haddonfield Mayor Tish Colombi introduced Sgt. Sarah Carroll, 29, a soldier on leave from Iraq and a school alumna.
For the sixth, seventh and eighth graders, Colombi had a message: "Every morning that we wake up in a free country is because of people like Sarah. Today, we welcome her home."
With balloons, applause and awe, the students finally met in person the soldier they'd been encouraging via mail for more than a year.
In a schoolwide effort initially organized by physical education teacher Pamela Probst, the students had sent more than 1,000 messages to Carroll and her division in Iraq. Over that time, the Haddonfield native had become a hero to many of the students.
"We wrote the letters and notes on our own time, in study hall or wherever we could," eighth grader Tara Back, 14, said. "We didn't know Sarah, but we knew she was doing something for all the rest of us back home. So it's a real honor to meet her."
As Carroll took in the sustained standing ovation from 500 middle schoolers, she said, "I never, ever expected this; it's just unbelievable! I'd wanted to come back here just to say thank-you to the kids, but I never expected this kind of welcome."
Carroll, who initially joined the U.S. Air Force and served for four years, was later studying criminal justice at Camden County College when she visited a friend at Fort Dix. "I realized how much I missed military life and also realized that I might be able to use my criminal justice background in the military," she said. She currently is serving with the U.S. Army's Military Police in Iraq.
She told the students their support had helped to raise her morale and downplayed any talk of heroics. "You go out every day and you do your job. And I love my job!"
Carroll also told students that their teachers and parents were heroes, too, with the day-to-day responsibility for keeping them safe and happy.
Many wanted to know whether she was ever frightened in Iraq, and Carroll didn't mince words: "You're always scared. And if you're not, then you don't belong there."
To those who wondered whether she missed home, the answer was, again, candid. Indeed, she misses her parents, Miles and Betty Carroll, who were on hand to share their daughter's special day. "But your soldier buddies become your family," she said. "They're your brothers and sisters."
The students showered Carroll with small gifts to take back to her military family when she finishes her 18-day holiday. They chose hard-to-get and yearned-for items such as toiletries, snacks and small luxuries, based on a list provided by Betty Carroll.
"It was great to meet her and to hear how much she cares about this country," said Michael D'Anella-Mercanti, 13. "She really inspired me."
Assistant principal Sandra Horwitz was gratified that the students listened so attentively.
"These kids hear about a war in Iraq and see it on TV, but it's just an abstraction to them until it becomes personal. And Sarah Carroll made it personal," Horwitz said.
"This experience allowed them to give of themselves through the cards and the gifts, and it also gave them a chance to better understand a very real part of the world today."
A number of businesses and organizations assemble care packages and organize letter-writing campaigns to support the troops overseas. To learn how you can help, go to:
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